Family Guy and Windows 7: Double Fail

Family Guy and Windows 7: Double Fail

A shameless marketing grab meets total pop culture cluelessness.

The “Family Guy” Windows 7 promo episode has undergone a strange journey. First, on October 13th, Fox announced that they were going to devote an entire “Family Guy”/Seth McFarlane variety show to promoting Windows 7 and released this underwhelming promo clip (which was actually just a redub of a previous episode):

The reaction from the idiot savants on the internet was almost universally negative. Then came the October 16th debut of the “Family Guy Presents: Seth & Alex’s Almost Live Comedy Show.” According to media reports, it wasn’t until the airing of this episode that someone at Microsoft realized that their new flagship product was going to share air time with fart jokes and racial stereotypes and subsequently pulled the plug on the special episode. “Not a fit with the Windows brand” was the official line from corporate.

There’s so much fail going on here, but neither should have been particularly surprising. Both “Family Guy” and Microsoft’s respective fails were in fact years in the making.

FAIL #1: “Family Guy” officially cedes any claim to edginess or subversiveness

Did *anybody* think this was funny?

Did *anybody* think this was funny?

Not that it had a whole lot to begin with, but much of the appeal of “Family Guy” rested with its subversive reputation: “Family Guy” was supposed to be the show that blew past conventional norms and pushed edgy content where no others would dare. This may have been true years ago, during the show’s original three seasons, but this is no longer the case. We’ve grown accustomed to the crass humor, non sequitur cut-aways, and gratuitous racial innuendo that used to shock and surprise us. “Family Guy” may deserve some credit for this change in taste, but nevertheless, it  fails to do anything other than dole out the same crap it’s been serving for years on end in the same predictable manner.

“Family Guy” was no longer original, edgy, or subversive by the time the Windows 7 fiasco broke, so it should have come as no surprise that the show sold itself out to the epitome of corporate dominance and the polar opposite of subsersiveness, Microsoft.

FAIL #2: Microsoft shows yet again that it doesn’t have a clue.

But Microsoft’s status as a corporate behemoth isn’t the focus of this fail. Instead, it’s the company’s repeated misreadings and miscalculations of the popular culture.

Exhibit A: the world’s first “cyber sitcom,” an excruciating attempt at associating Windows 95 with the coolest of cool at the time, “Friends”:

Exhibit B:Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld at the shoe store, only the first of a series of utterly incomprehensible ads:

And lastly, Exhibit C: The Windows 7 Launch Party promo campaign, and its accompanying painful “how to” video that went on a one way trip to YouTube infamy:

Ouch. It’s no wonder that Microsoft always seems to come with a healthy dose of uncool in the pop culture zeitgeist.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAIL: Adding Insult to Injury

As if these missteps weren’t embarrassing enough on their own, both “Family Guy” and Microsoft have bitter rivals that they are loathe to lose face to.

I'm not saying that South Park is without fault, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have sold an entire episode to promoting Windows 7.

I'm not saying that South Park is without fault, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have sold an entire episode to promoting Windows 7.

I am of course referring to “South Park” and Apple. Many regard “South Park” as far superior to “Family Guy,” both in terms of comedic and satirical value. That may be up for debate, but I doubt few would argue that “South Park” and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, would have made a similar deal with a corporate behemoth sponsor.

Likewise, few could imagine Apple launching an abortive tie-in campaign with an awkward TV show combination. A special Snow Leopard edition of “Dancing with the Stars” that gets pulled at the last minute for “not being a fit with the Apple brand”? I think not. Apple has far better understanding and control of their brand. They create their own sense of “cool” without having to rely on awkward tie-ins with “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” or “Family Guy.”

Doesn't shoe shop with Seinfeld.

Doesn't shoe shop with Seinfeld.

Now, I want to be clear on what it is exactly that I’m criticizing and what I’m doing when I compare and contrast these two pairs. I’m not necessarily saying that “Family Guy” should be the same satirical and subversive force that “South Park” is. And I’m not necessarily saying that Windows 7 is worse than Snow Leopard due to Microsoft’s lack of marketing and pop culture savvy.

What I am trying to criticize, however, is the clusterf@#$ of bad decisions on both sides that led to this unholy matrimony of Fail. I’m criticizing Fox and McFarlane’s shameless grab at whatever marketing dollars came their way, and I’m criticizing Microsoft’s baffling ignorance and miscalculation on this and its previous strategies. There are smart people at Fox and Microsoft. They should know better.

22 Comments on “Family Guy and Windows 7: Double Fail”

  1. Perich #

    Did *anybody* think this was funny?

    Thank you for bringing that up, as it lets me broach a subject I’ve been sitting on for years: that scene wasn’t funny. In fact, that scene made me monumentally uncomfortable.

    It had little to do with the crassness of it. Vomit can be funny, just like blood, piss, semen or any number of bodily fluids can be. But it takes a certain context. What makes vomit funny is its incongruity (I’m vomiting at a public library), or the mighty brought low (the Queen of England is vomiting), or the discomforting grossness (I vomited in someone’s soup, and they didn’t see it, and they’re dipping their spoon in!)

    That scene doesn’t focus on how much they’re vomiting, but on how much they want to stop vomiting. It focuses on their raw, animal helplessness. Peter firehoses vomit every way he turns his head. Stewie pants for breath (“I think … I think it’s done …”). Brian rocks back and forth like a shell-shocked veteran, clutching his knees (“I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna”).

    Helplessness – being victim to the autonomic nervous system – isn’t funny. At least not to me, but I suspect few other people find it funny. It’s almost uniformly horrifying.

    Anyhow, sorry to go on a tangent. Back to lunch.


  2. lee OTI Staff #

    @Perich, agreed, but also on the subject of vomit, I wonder what you thought of the vomit scene at the end of the first half of “Team America: World Police,” which has a similar fire-hose aspect to its depiction of vomiting. Somehow, I didn’t find that to be nearly as uncomfortable to watch as the South Park scene, but I can’t quite explain why.


  3. perich OTI Staff #

    Somehow, I didn’t find that to be nearly as uncomfortable to watch as the South Park scene, but I can’t quite explain why.

    Because, if I recall correctly, it doesn’t linger on the character’s agony. The only noise he makes is vomiting; he’s not wailing for it to stop.


  4. lee OTI Staff #

    By “South Park Scene” I clearly meant “Family Guy” scene.

    He’s not waiting for it to stop in the Team America scene? Um, perhaps you might want to watch the scene again:


  5. Trevor #

    Anytime a rich, white-guy-run corporation tries to be “hip” by “appealing to the kids out there,” unintentional hilarity will ensue. So Microsoft had it coming the minute someone decided this was a good idea.

    But regarding Seth McFarlane, I think he saw this as an opportunity to take the money and run. He may have also thought that he could pull a genuinely subversive move, by having racial insults and frat-house-level humor under the corporate banner of a well-regarded corporation. Or it could be yet another example of his evil corporate overlord Rupert Murdoch having it both ways (for all the times that Fox News has decried the death of American culture with Bill O’Reilly trumpeting up “culture wars” and other bumper-sticker-friendly phrases, the Fox network has given the world “The Simpsons”, “Arrested Development”, and “Family Guy”).


  6. Carlos #

    That vomit scene in Family Guy was hilarious.

    You people are philistines.


  7. Sillyweasel #

    @Perich speaking of Family and scenes attempting to make helplessness funny, I was more than uncomfortable with the strawberry being raped by a worm and the following shower scene not too long ago. I wonder how many other examples of this shows up in the writing for Family Guy?


  8. Haszari #
    South Park _do_ promote something – Apple & Mac OS X! But not directly on their show.

    The vomit scene is funny/entertaining to me, because of the agony. It’s an eample what Family Guy and Simpsons (and Ren & Stimpy) are often really good at – excessively realistic grossness, which is a refreshing change from standard TV fare like e.g. Friends where everything’s sugar coated wonderfulness and vomiting is able to be used in a lightweight humourous manner.


  9. John Bejarano #

    Wait. Isn’t Steve Jobs a “rich, white guy” running Apple?


  10. perich OTI Staff #

    @Lee: having rewatched it, yes, it gets just as bad right near the end. But only for a few seconds.


  11. lee OTI Staff #

    @Perich: the real difference between the Team America and Family Guy vomit scenes is that in the former example, you can partly justify the act in the context of the larger plot. Gary vomits because he’s hit rock bottom, and he needs to (literally) purify himself. As for the Family Guy scene, well, I can’t remember what the context of the vomiting was, but I doubt it was anything that could justify the non-stop barf-fest.


  12. lee OTI Staff #

    @Bejarano, you might want to get your Reality Distortion Field checked out. If it were working, you’d realize that His Steveness transcends race, class, and all other obstacles to hipness.


  13. Gab #

    While the MS7 stuff given up above is, indeed, pretty fail-tastic, I am totally in love with the ads featuring that little girl, Kylie. This one, for example:

    For some reason, I wasn’t aware of the _Family Guy_ ad until reading your piece.


  14. Jon #

    You know, Lee, I don’t disagree with your assessment, but I feel like this isn’t particularly Overthought. Seems to me like you’re just pointing out the obvious: Ha ha, Microsoft is so stupid that signed a deal with Seth MacFarlane without actually watching any of his programming!

    But what motivated them to make such a decision? Where did the system go so horribly awry that such a thing could happen? In fact, as far as I know, nobody was even fired over this. MacFarlane’s motivation isn’t too hard to suss out (think back to Stephen Colbert at the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner), but what might this special have looked like?

    Better yet, why not Overthink this by offering suggestions for a decent ad campaign for Microsoft? I mean, christ, look at that that “Windows 7 Party” video — I’d be willing to bet that most OverthinkingIt readers — let alone writers — would be able to put together a more professional-looking and more compelling (and therefore more convincing) ad for Windows 7 on virtually no budget. Yet Microsoft has got BILLIONS and can’t come up with a video that doesn’t look like something they’d show at your Driver’s Ed course.

    So yeah. Major fail. But why not look at some of the causes underlying that fail, and figure out why they haven’t been fixed, even after a decade and a half of bungling ad campaigns and PR missteps by a company whose owner has been the wealthiest person in the world for 14 of the last 15 years, and whose average ranking in the Fortune 500 list this decade is 56.6?


  15. Jon Eric #

    Sorry to double-post, but I’ve got two quick corrections.

    First off, I forgot to sign my previous post properly. Oops.

    Second of all, when calculating Microsoft’s mean Fortune 500 ranking of the decade, I forgot to include its 2009 ranking (35, an all-time high for the company). That drags the decade’s average down to 54.5.


  16. Matt #

    Family Guy really ran off the rails whenever they stopped trying to tell jokes and started trying to be political. It’s a common complaint that Brian the dog has become Seth’s mouthpiece to voice whatever political beliefs he may have, which is especially ironic, because Brian is Seth’s normal speaking voice. Nowadays, they usually try to make “topical” episodes concerning modern-day issues/jokes, which is South Park’s schtick. If they’d return to form and just make 80s jokes, I think they could have a return to glory.

    As for Microsoft… yeesh. Personally, I think my advertising campaign would have a John Hodgman look-alike sitting down and saying “Look, I’m a PC. I’m not the hippest thing on the market, but I am a freaking work horse. I will get your job done FAST. And I’ll do it for a lot less money.”


  17. lee OTI Staff #

    @Jon, fair point. That’s where I would have taken the article if I had more time.

    Let me throw another example of Microsoft marketing fail. You may have seen this literal white-washing of an image of office workers for their Polish website:

    Further proof that Microsoft makes huge gaffes despite its largess.

    If I had to Overthink and dissect why MS keeps failing in marketing where Apple doesn’t, I’d have to point to two related factors: size and scope.

    Size: measured by July-Sept 09 quarterly revenue, MS is about 30% larger than Apple. A larger company is inherently more difficult to keep on message…

    Scope: …especially when its activity is spread across a vast array of software and hardware products. The same company that makes SQL Server and Sharepoint (hardcore enterprise software) also makes the Zune, Hotmail, and Bing. Apple, by comparison, has a wide range of products as well (Mac Pro, XServe, and hard core creative software on one end, iTunes and the App Store on the other end), but they seem to fit together better as a universe of personal computing products.

    Plus, Steve Jobs is a merciless control freak and perfectionist who would feed to the dogs any marketing person who came up with anything that wound up getting lampooned like the Windows 7 launch party video.


  18. Genevieve #

    @Matt – I’m not sure I’d call “Brian-using-MacFarlane’s-regular-voice” *ironic* so much as *transparent.* Heh.

    Also, am I the only one who, in thoughts, occasionally confuses Seth MacFarlane and Todd McFarlane, *with hilarious results*??

    @ Lee & Jon Eric – I’m willing to bet that at least a part of the reason that Microsoft screws up so gloriously at times is that they just Don’t Care. That is, c’mon. Are they really going to lose money because of any of this? They could dance around in S.S. costumes whistling Dixie and still have more money in one share of stock than I have in my bank account. I mean, I guess someone has some oversight, if they realized they didn’t want to do the Family Guy thing after all… but they don’t seem particularly worried about the fallout at this point. They’re just acting like, “Whatever guys, we screwed up, but we’re rich, and it’s not like the whole world is going to run out an learn Linux, so suck it up already!”


  19. Jon Eric #

    Well, I went out and learned Linux, but I’m an outlier in a lot of ways.

    At any rate, Genevieve, you’re probably right that they’re not actually losing money due to this PR fiasco or the inane marketing videos for the same product. But I do believe that they’re missing out on lots of potential gains.

    There’s no skirting around the fact that Microsoft has a larger market share currently than they ever have before. They’re currently at their all-time high position on the Fortune 500 list, and Bill Gates, even having retired as chief software architect and CEO, has regained his position as the wealthiest man in the world. (Side note: I was trying to look up when he first ascended to that position, but came up dry. Anyone happen to know?)

    Still, I can’t help but feel like, with some decent marketing, some copywriters who know what they’re doing, and some kind of output that shows they have some idea of where the public zeitgeist is at vis-a-vis computers, they could be preventing some of their inevitable market-share loss to Apple — and maybe even taking some of those customers back.

    But hey, it’s their billions to lose.


  20. Gab #

    “They could dance around in S.S. costumes whistling Dixie and still…”



    And I still insist those ads with Kylie are friggin’ adorable and totally win me over- if I had the money, I’d try it out, since I’m probably less apt with computers and software than the average kid her age. I mean, come on. I think Vista is great, and I know I shouldn’t.


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